The memorial for six firefighters who lost their lives fighting the Dude Fire near Bonita Creek 23 years ago stands as a tragic reminder as Rim Country slides toward yet another unpredictable wildfire season.
Back in 1992, the fire racing down off the Rim through a narrow canyon trapped a group of firefighters, forcing them to crawl into their fire shelters and wait. Six died, but several others walked out of Walk Moore Canyon.
Recently a group of local area firefighters heard one of those survivors describe the horror of waiting helplessly in his fire shelter for the flames to pass as his companions burned to death.
At one point in the inferno, he wondered whether he should end the torture by simply crawling out of the shelter and taking a single deep breath of the hot gasses. But thoughts of his family and friends kept him in his disintegrating shelter, his face planted against the forest floor.
When it was over, he had third-degree burns, but was alive.
Firefighters from around Rim Country listened intently to the man’s message on a training video April 6 during a wildland firefighting refresher course at Rumsey Park. After the video, the men practiced getting in and out of fire shelters with a new urgency.
Bob Eavenson, an engine boss with Hellsgate Fire Department who oversaw the training station, yelled at the men as they scrambled into their shelters, pulling at the sides to simulate the roaring wind in a forest fire.
“You’re on fire,” he yelled at one firefighter, who had a leg sticking out of his shelter. “You’re dead,” he yelled at another who had his head pointing toward the oncoming ‘fire.’
The men lay motionless in their shelters, which resemble nothing more than a tinfoil bag, until Eavenson told them it was safe to get up.
Firefighters must know how to get into their shelters within seconds and what to do to survive once inside, said Eavenson.
He suggested they repeat a mantra to keep their wits about them. One suggestion? “Oh crap, oh crap,” he said.
Roughly, 40 firefighters heard the message throughout the daylong training, which included several other stations.
Rob Jarvis, the Christopher-Kohls fire chief who helped organize the event, said a fire shelter is one of the most important pieces of equipment a firefighter carries. And one they hope to never use.
Every year, firefighters brush up on their skills. While this can be done through videos and text, Rim Country fire departments agreed to come together for hands-on training at the park.
“It allows us to interact and co-mingle,” Jarvis said. “And they get much more out of this.”